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Climate change summitry's force of nature: Christiana Figueres (+video)

How UN climate change chief Christiana Figueres became a fierce crusader to lower Earth's thermostat. A visceral connection to the planet – from the now-extinct golden toads of her childhood in the Costa Rican jungle to shrinking glaciers – moves her to tears.

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    United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres is seen in this photograph taken on May 30, 2014, in Boston, Mass.
    Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
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It was like Goliath curling a finger at David to come over and talk. Last November the United Nations was holding one of its annual climate meetings in Warsaw. The World Coal Association was convening a summit of its own across town. The coal boosters asked the UN’s climate chief, Christiana Figueres, to officially address the group.

In other words, the world’s biggest carbon emitter was inviting the world’s top official charged with cutting carbon emissions into its none-too-friendly lair. Environmentalists considered the overture a provocation. Allies such as the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, and Oxfam warned Ms. Figueres not to take the bait.

“NGOs were filing in asking me not to go, the youth movement was asking me not to go ... their concern was that I would legitimize coal,” says Figueres. “I didn’t think that was a very strong argument” against taking the climate case straight to the opposition.

She doesn’t see ignoring any player in the climate game as an option. If trust is a bridge built stone by stone, this was one heavy-lifting job Figueres couldn’t refuse. The tiny diplomat from tiny Costa Rica is the world’s top climate policymaker, and she’s in a manic, 11th-hour race to span what many believe to be an unbridgeable divide: getting 195 nations to agree by the end of 2015 to begin cutting their carbon emissions or adopting other climate-friendly policies to halt global warming.

Anti-coal demonstrators protesting outside the Polish Ministry of Economy, where the coal summit was taking place, were also railing against Figueres’s appearance. So she had to awkwardly go in a back entrance.

Once inside, she reminded the coal executives of growing global public sentiment that climate change is a security threat. She told them pointedly that the industry faces catastrophic financial risks if it doesn’t begin to diversify into the “green economy.”

In the months since, Figueres says, her effort has been quietly vindicated. Chief executive officers of major energy companies – two coal, and five oil and gas – have reached out to her privately to discuss their green efforts, she says.

It’s this kind of piecemeal bridge-building – and her relentless optimism that every stone counts – that makes Figueres possibly the most important environmental leader you’ve never heard of.

“No one has done more to advance climate policy than Christiana Figueres, period,” says Paul Steinberg, a scholar of environmental leadership at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif.

Al Gore may have won a Nobel Prize and an Academy Award for popularizing awareness of climate change. But Figueres has “walked the talk” on a global circuit, from the unglamorous grass-roots work to the tedium of line-by-line horse-trading on treaties to sophisticated charm offensives at the head-of-state level.

Professor Steinberg notes specifically that Figueres parlayed knowledge developed while consulting on small sustainable development projects into shepherding an unprecedented collection of clean development mechanisms in Latin America when she was a climate negotiator in the 1990s and early 2000s. Many diplomats spend their careers “making changes in the margins to legal text and convening meetings,” says Steinberg, but few at Figueres’s level have her “intimate familiarity with how policy works ... how to bring about change ... at the national [and local] levels.”

And since taking the UN climate lead in 2010, she has been credited – at the very least – with creatively keeping the process on track after the disastrous 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, where presidents and prime ministers failed to salvage a much-anticipated agreement, prompting Figueres’s predecessor to resign.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has invited heads of state to a climate summit at the UN on Sept. 23. It’s intended to rally support for the final push to get an agreement in Paris in 2015. It’s not Figueres’s show, but it will be an important gauge of enthusiasm for the challenge she’s charged with.

Political pedigree: Talking to princes or villagers

Figueres, say some, owes her rise to UN climate chief in part to where she comes from: a nonthreatening small country sandwiched between the Atlantic and Pacific, Nicaragua and Panama. But she boasts an outsize political and environmental pedigree that gives her some extraordinary grounding for the job, too.

Her father – José Figueres Ferrer, the revolutionary founder of modern Costa Rican democracy – was elected to three nonconsecutive terms as president and abolished the nation’s standing army. Her US-born mother, Karen Olsen Figueres, served in the Costa Rican congress and as ambassador to Israel. Her older brother, José María Figueres, served a term as president in the 1990s. Her younger brother, Mariano Figueres Olsen, is now the national security director. And her half sister, Muni Figueres, is the ambassador to the United States.

“I unduly get some credit for what the family has done,” observes Christiana. But she adds that her background – from formal protocol to a year spent in an indigenous village in Talamanca, Costa Rica, writing a Bribri language literacy textbook – prepared her well for her current job. Last spring she met with Prince Charles and the Queen of Bhutan – “no problem,” she says. “But I can also sit in Nepal on the floor of a little hut with a woman who has just installed her new efficient wood stove and have a conversation with her.”

But the family business obviously had an effect on her. Christiana came of age as her parents were leveraging their political power in a unique way, triggering the transformation of Costa Rica from an unstable banana republic into a global model of sustainable ecological development. The country today preserves 25 percent of its territory in national sanctuaries.

The vision that national parks created out of lush rain forests, rugged mountains, and rich coastline could pay for themselves through ecotourism was championed perhaps most by the elder Ms. Figueres. In the early 1970s, she mentored the two young conservationists – Mario Boza and Alvaro Ugalde – who would become the founders of Costa Rica’s national park system. Mr. Boza has called her the “fairy godmother” of the park system for her efforts, including behind-the-scenes intrigue in outwitting her husband’s pro-ranching ministers who wanted to block passage of the parks.

The children grew up in an intensely political household. They were always seated at dinner with visiting dignitaries and traveling with their father on campaign swings. “It was like we were old since we were young,” says Christiana’s brother Mariano.

Karen Figueres, the matriarch who mixes the regal demeanor of a three-time first lady with a humble public service ethic, strictly tutored the kids in official protocol, telling them etiquette isn’t something that’s “stiff; it’s thoughtfulness of others.” And she says that Character Lesson No. 1 for the family was that service to others should be reflexive. “It’s not complicated to just do,” she says almost indignantly. “But people make things complicated because they want to appear important.”

That sensibility, say Figueres’s siblings, was reinforced by what they call a “rock” of calm spirituality provided by their maternal grandfather, a Christian Scientist whom they lived with when their parents were occupied with official duties.

The adults in the family collectively cultivated a humility seen even today in Figueres’s ability to shift from power figure to normal citizen: She asked for public transit directions to come to a Monitor interview (a plan foiled by a tight schedule); when she’s offstage her 5-foot frame relaxes and she slips into an informal tone, starting her English sentences with Spanish “peros” and “porques.”

A direct line can be drawn from the family ethic to Christiana’s reputation as a facilitator. She has a formidable sensitivity in bridging the gulfs between the interests of struggling developing nations and big-foot industrialized countries. She’s also legendary among friends and colleagues for her personal outreach. Last year she spent two weeks of vacation caring for her Swarthmore College roommate’s ailing mother, and she’s known for her pajama-clad Skype sessions, in the wee hours, with former employees who need counseling and advice across time zones.

Her devotion to the environment began early, when she was in elementary school, and often manifests itself in emotional ways. Her presidential brother, José María, traces it back to when she was “just one of the guys” exploring on horseback the wilderness around the family farm – “La lucha sin fin,” or “the struggle without end” – in the mountains above the capital, San José.

Her youngest daughter, Yihana Ritter, a Stanford graduate and recent Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, recalls first becoming aware of her mother’s feelings about nature during a fourth-grade class. The future climate chief erupted in tears describing her childhood memory of the dazzling golden toads of the Costa Rican rain forest – the first species believed to have gone extinct as a result of global warming.

When Figueres delivered the commencement address at the University of Massachusetts Boston in May, words caught in her throat and tears pooled in her eyes as she asked the graduating students to “imagine a world where no woman has to cook on an open-fire stove,” polluting the air her own children breathe. And she wept in a BBC interview last year, describing as “immoral” the inheritance today’s polluters are leaving to the unborn.

2 degrees of optimism

 Figueres’s official title captures all the arcane technicality of the notoriously lethargic UN bureaucracy: executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). But Figueres defies the stultifying nomenclature: A lean long-distance runner, she cuts a fast-twitch profile. Often swathed in bold colors, she makes charming eye contact, alternates a machine-gun intellectual delivery in fluent Spanish, English, or German with a mom-like patience, and has a propensity to pound tables and shed contagious mascara-tinged tears. 

While colleagues refuse to compare her with predecessors, they use adjectives such as “revolutionary,” “intense,” and “reenergizing” to describe her imprint on the UNFCCC. Miriam Medel, a Mexican diplomat who worked in the UNFCCC headquarters in Bonn, Germany, when Figueres took over in 2010, says, “I have never seen anything like it [in] a top leader.”

The new climate chief swooped in ordering unused conference space be turned into yoga and meditation rooms, pedaled a bike to work, and took tough steps to clean up or ship out nonperforming employees. The big unprecedented “wow,” adds Ms. Medel: Figueres gave all 400-plus employees her personal cellphone number.

Dozens of interviews with those who know her – even those who have disagreed with her – reveal unanimous personal respect and little criticism. The toughest assessment from some is that she is too much of an optimist.

Indeed, suggests Ted Parson, a University of California, Los Angeles expert on global environmental law, who else but an optimist would take what “looks like a loser of a job?” After all, for two decades, the UNFCCC has failed to reach a multilateral agreement on a goal it states as stabilizing “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system.”

But Figueres is a ferocious multitasker who is on the global bully pulpit circuit an average of two weeks a month. She projects an energetic belief that she – and the climate agreement process – can achieve the holy grail: 2 degrees Celsius. That is, getting agreement by December 2015 on the kinds of economic trade-offs, legal language, technological advances, behavioral change, political will, and funding 195 countries will need to turn the arc of global emissions downward by 2020. And to do that fast enough to hold average global temperature increases to 2 degrees above preindustrial levels by 2100.

Limiting temperatures at that level may halt global warming, which already has been linked to extreme storms, drought, rising seas, and flooding. (The UN’s climate science experts – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – estimate current average temperatures have already risen 0.8 degrees since the Industrial Revolution.)

Framed on Figueres’s UN office wall, note staffers, is the maxim: “Impossible is not a fact. It’s an attitude.”

So, what of the “impossibilities,” such as convincing climate change skeptics, who remain doubtful that the warming effects of fossil-fuel pollution and deforestation are causing catastrophic climate change? Gallup found that 1 in 4 Americans last spring is not worried about global warming – that’s a constituency that can dampen political enthusiasm on climate agreements. And what about the unwieldy and slow multilateral UN process? Many believe a few bilateral agreements among polluting giants such as the US, China, and India can be faster and more productive.

Figueres, the bridge-builder, sees skepticism as just a perspective to be leveraged. For example, she says, “If someone is contributing to the solution, I don’t care what the motive is.” Self-preservation is sometimes a better prod to adopting green habits than the “obvious scientific evidence” of warming, she says.

At the grass-roots level, she points to the Green Tea Coalition, a group of American political conservatives who find common ground with conservationism. “They’re putting solar panels on their roof because they don’t want to be dependent on anyone to provide them electricity. That’s fine by me. It makes sense, and it’s a contribution to the [global warming] solution.”

On a larger scale, she says, the Chinese have already exceeded their UN pledges to reduce carbon intensity – a measure of how much carbon is emitted for every dollar of gross domestic product – by 2020. They are closing down coal plants and enforcing air-quality regulations, she says, “not because they want to save the planet, but because they actually want to breathe air that is not visible. That’s fine by me.”

As for the UNFCCC process, it “is the nucleus of an emerging solution, but certainly not the boundary.” It is an agenda-setter and deliberative process that provides small nations a voice among the large, she says. It is important, even if it’s not the final solution. It’s also more economical in the long run, she adds.

This approach can lead to increased buy-in. “For example, before Copenhagen we had 40 climate change laws on the table; today we have 500 laws in 60 countries covering 80 percent of global emissions [and] over 200 cities actually taking action on climate change,” she says. “That doesn’t happen just coincidentally. No country can solve this individually.”

Ultimately, she says, the climate battle has to be won citizen by citizen: “We have to get to the point where climate change is not something esoteric, out there, or something that future generations need to deal with, or something that’s going to hit Bangladesh. It’s got to be made immediate both in our daily experience as well as something that has meaning for the individuals.”

Guiding the steampunk machinery of summitry

If UNFCCC summitry had an aesthetic, it might be steampunk – it is a huge and complex, gear-grinding engine of unexpected results. Easily 20,000 people attend summits as official negotiators, nongovernmental observers, press, and – of course – demonstrators. The presiding gavel is the host nation’s, but Figueres’s UNFCCC is the “civil service arm” stoking the roiling political process.

Summits are two-week crescendos of chaos and sleepless nights that end in what Jonathan Pershing, US deputy assistant secretary for climate change policy, calls a “tearing hurry” to keep shreds of agreement together.

That scrum, say those who have worked with her, is where Figueres is at her best and fastest bridge-building. She knows whom to engage, and in what order, to build a consensus, says Mr. Pershing.

Figueres describes her talent as a balancing act, “particularly in the last three days [of summits] when nobody gets any sleep – the trick is to understand what red lines there are that countries cannot cross [and finding agreement] that is not fully satisfactory to anyone but agreeable to all.”

Woe to the novice negotiator who chooses to push back too hard, says Manuel Estrada Porrúa, who, as a climate negotiator for Mexico, admired Figueres’s “strong character.” “She would know things you didn’t, and by the time she got to you she’d have already gone to the US, Europe, and Canada, and would know what would fly.”

As UNFCCC chief, Figueres is not a negotiator. Her job is to grease the wheels of negotiations. And, says Mr. Estrada, her behind-the-scenes mechanics are at least partially responsible for saving the 2010 Cancún summit that Bolivia threatened to derail. Alone among the 195 nations, Bolivia opposed the agreement, saying it weakened the obligations of polluting developed nations at the expense of poorer ones.

The chair of that summit, Patricia Espinosa, the Mexican foreign secretary at the time, is credited with finessing unprecedented tactics that sped up the process and also skirted Bolivia’s intransigence. For example, she conducted deliberations on Sundays, against UN tradition. But more controversially, she melded accord language from different negotiating sessions rather than putting it through a tedious paragraph-by-paragraph group edit; she throttled Bolivia by reinterpreting the UN’s cautious definition of consensus to allow “consensus without unanimity.”

But, Ms. Espinosa, now Mexico’s ambassador to Germany, says it was Figueres who dragged the “by the book” UN bureaucracy to enable the Mexican strategy to work. Among the many hurdles, big and small, Figueres handled were getting approval for the overtime pay needed for language interpreters to work Sunday sessions, as well as troubleshooting objections to the editing process of the agreement, and – most important – preventing the accord from being held up by a lone objector. In the end, Espinosa gaveled down Bolivia’s protest, making note of its objection, and the incremental progress the Cancún agreements held.

Richard Kinley, a senior aide to Figueres from Canada, credits his boss for not just helping Espinosa but reviving an agency that was “shellshocked” from its Copenhagen experience. “[She] pulled a rather cautious bureaucracy into a more positive and creative direction.... One of the hallmarks of Cancún is there has been no questioning of the decisions by any government, including Bolivia.”

The outlines of a larger hallmark – the 2015 Paris summit, and Figueres’s legacy – are expected to take shape at this year’s UNFCCC summit in Lima, Peru, in December. Figueres says she considers Lima her real deadline to put down “all the markers” for a final climate agreement.

“Next year is too late,” she says. “We do have the time [to get the 2-degree agreement], but we are five minutes to midnight and that is why we all have to be here on high alert.”

Tears for a glacier ... and earth

Whether the treaty squeaks by or not, it’s hard to see Figueres – whose second term as climate chief ends in 2016 – giving up the global warming fight, which she says is not a job but “my purpose in life.” “If destiny had an adjective,” she says, “that’s the adjective I’d want to use” to describe what is “my passion in life.”

Figueres’s emotional connection to saving the planet comes through in her public speeches. But it’s her private tears over global warming – where no audience squirms in sympathetic discomfort – that most convincingly illustrate the visceral grip the issue holds on her.

Two of Figueres’s siblings who joined her in 2012 for a reunion in Austria describe her excitedly taking them up a ski gondola to see the Schmiedinger Kees glacier where the Austrian national ski team once trained in summer. Even knowing that global warming had reduced the size of glaciers all over the world, she couldn’t contain her shock at the sight of the browned and tattered remnants of the severely shrunken ice sheet.

Figueres stood stricken, and dissolved in sobs – as she does again just recounting the story in a Monitor newsroom interview, tears threatening to stain her bright pink scarf. Her brother Mariano and her sister, Kirsten, too, both cry in phone interviews describing the sad huddle the clan formed there at the top of the world far from their tropical homeland.

She was “brokenhearted ... to see how human beings are working to destroy [nature],” Kirsten says, offering an explanation.

The moment turned out to be an epiphany for Figueres, who says: “I was trying to decide right then, that summer, whether I would even be interested in a [second three-year term] at the climate convention. I decided, I will stay…. I can’t walk away now.” 

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